Central Illinois World War II Stories
Perry Rannebarger was drafted into the Illinois National Guard in September 1941 prior to the U.S. entering World War II. He became part of an infantry regiment and was sent to Australia just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was among the first soldiers to become part of the Americal Division. He fought in the Battle of Mount Austen during the Guadalcanal campaign.
During World War II, Harry Reed was a flight engineer on a plane that was the equivalent of today’s Air Force II. His plane carrying Secret Service members flew about 20 minutes in front of the plane carrying the President and landed in time to give the Secret Service people adequate time to secure the area for the President and other dignitaries. His assignments included flying Eleanor Roosevelt after FDR died (The President’s body was moved by train). Reed’s plane flew the President and others to vital meetings at places like Yalta and Pottsdam, as well as making a flight to South America that gave the U.S. options for a possible new way to reach Japan by air. The plane also broke the round trip speed record to Paris. Harry Reed will tell you that is proud that he was able to serve his country and that he sees himself as being very lucky to have gotten the assignments he did.
Joseph Hamburg served in the Army infantry in Europe, participating in the Normandy campaign and the battle for the city of Brest in the Brittany region of France. He also served in the army of occupation in France and Belgium.
Alexander Samaras was the commanding officer of an LCT in the Navy, and fought at Utah Beach on D-Day. He and his men worked to ferry in troops and equipment, and then later on to ferry out the dead and prisoners. His LCT also carried in crucial equipment used to set up communications for both Omaha and Utah Beach. He joined his LCT in New Orleans, and the LCT was taken across the Atlantic on a larger LST. As a junior officer, he had to take his turn standing watch on the LST. During rough weather one night while he was on watch, three of the ships in his convoy were struck by torpedoes and blown up. That same night, his LST was hit by a torpedo, but it was dud. The entire hold of his LST, the length of a football field, was filled with ammunition. The torpedo put a dent in the stern. “It made me a fatalist,” he says.
Hale Burge started his career in the Air Force (then the Army Air Force) when he was drafted into World War II as a teenager in rural Illinois. Like all inductees, he was tested in a lot of areas in order to best match his skills to the job he would be assigned. For him, that meant that he would be working on planes. Burge served in the Aleutian Island chain, frequently taking parts from a number of broken planes in order to create single plane that could be safely put back in the air. He saw terrible crashes and talks about the loss of life. Planes from these northern Pacific islands bombed Japan and other sites. America’s presence in the area prevented invasion of Alaska and gave the enemy another area to worry about and to have to spread their forces out more. Burge, a man who lived through the dark Depression years, also talks about involvement in the war as positively affecting this country.
Ed Layden went into the Army before World War II, but suffered an injury and was discharged before the U.S. went to war. He returned home, and worked on the family farm. Once the war started, it was very hard to find workers to help with farm work, and many farmers worried that it wouldn’t be possible to get their crops harvested before they spoiled in the fields. The program in which German POWs helped out as laborers on their farms proved to be very helpful. Layden worked with 20 German prisoners from the German POW camp in Hoopeston harvesting sweet corn. The prisoners were picked up at the canning factory in his dad’s truck and brought to his farm. They enjoyed being out in the country, where his mother would make them sandwiches, cookies and chocolate milk.
Harold Cox served in the Army from April 1944 to September 1945. He fought in the Rhineland Campaigns in Europe.
Albert Helregel served in the Army Artillery from March 1941 to June 1945. The No. 1 man on a gun crew of a 105 mm Howitzer, he was involved in the battles of Guadalcanal and Bougainville.
Kermit Harden served in the U.S. Army infantry in Europe. He was awarded the Silver and Bronze Stars and participated in major battles in Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland and Central Europe. As a prisoner of the Germans, Harden was part of a famous prisoner exchange engineered by a Red Cross officer who boldly traveled into enemy territory to negotiate the swap.
Hoopeston was home to a German POW camp where prisoners were taken to area farm fields and factories to work. Eighty people attended a community conversation October 25, 2007 at the Hoopeston Public Library in Hoopeston, IL featuring local stories of the former POW camp in Hoopeston during WWII. Speaking were brothers Tom and Ed Layden who worked side-by-side with captured German soldiers; Carol Hicks, a historian who has researched and written on the Hoopeston POW camp; Curt Campbell, who was a POW mistreated by German soldiers; and Larry Coon, who has a child visited the German POW at the Hoopeston camp. The event was co-sponsored by WILL AM-FM-TV and the Hoopeston Public Library. The panel and audience discussion were moderated by Tom Rogers of WILL AM-FM-TV.
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